Last Sunday was Father’s Day and as for many, many years my bags were packed for a drive east to the Detroit area to attend two of my favorite car events of the year. Readers who are serious car buffs probably can guess what two car shows I’m attracted to each year. For the casual car culture observer, the bright lights in the Motor City area that draws this moth to Wayne County each June is the two-day Motor Muster extravaganza on the grounds of Greenfield Village in Dearborn, and the exquisite Eye’sOn Design affair on the grounds of the Edsel and Eleanor Ford estate in the northern suburb of Grosse Pointe Shores.
This year my trip was extra special because I met up with longtime friend Cliff Ghetti of New Jersey and his acquaintance from Germany, Gert Schmidt. Cliff and I go back for 56 years when we both attended Michigan State University and lived in rooms on the same floor in McDonel Hall dormitory. We discovered our mutual deep interest in auto design and have remained friends ever since. Cliff would end up getting his degree in auto design from Pasadena’s prestigious Art Center School and was hired as an auto designer at Chrysler Corporation. Over those 56 years we have met up at dozens of car shows and events between Michigan and New Jersey.
Clifford met his German friend Gert Schmidt 15 years ago while both were attending the annual springtime New York International Auto Show, held in downtown New York City at the Jacob Javits Convention Center. Gert, who happens to be my age (meaning over 70 years old but doesn’t look it) is a retired college professor who resides in Munich in the Bavaria region of Germany. In his younger days his greatest automotive fascination was not about German cars, but rather about American brands. His deep interest in and amazing knowledge of American automotive brands easily outmatches mine. In other words we are kindred spirits – both bona fide car nuts.
Gert’s interest in U.S. cars started as a boy when he delivered newspapers to American GIs living Army quarters near his home. He fell in love with the large, showy American cars owned by the American servicemen. He especially liked to hear the rumble of the exhaust of an American V-8 engine and also liked the bright colors of the vehicles. In fact, he became enamored with the flamboyant American culture in general – so different from the bleak post-war living conditions found in Germany at that time.
I had heard Cliff speak of Gert on many occasions over the years, but this was the first time I had had the privilege of meeting him. After spending two days walking what seemed like miles on the grounds of both the Motor Muster and EyesOn, we became well-acquainted and we were able to share many car stories. I discovered that not only were we born the same year, but we also share very similar automotive likes and dislikes. We both think that the finned 1959 Buick is the cat’s meow and place it at the top of our best-liked car list. Naturally, we both own a 1:18 scale diecast model of a 1959 Buick. I didn’t ask Gert where he keeps his model, but my Buick resides on the lamp table next to my bed. As we strolled through Greenfield Village and the Ford estate grounds, I made the discoveries that Gert owns between 80-100 diecast scale model cars in the 1:33, 1:24; and 1:18 sizes. To each of these he has an attachment. I was quite amazed when I heard that he has a 1:18 scale diecast copy of every Chevrolet built from 1950 to 1960.
Now this shared enthusiasm between two men the same age wouldn’t be that unusual if Gert had grown up in the U.S. But Gert grew up amongst brands like Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Audi, Renault, Lada, Fiat, Volvo and all the auto brands that were popular and sold in Germany. So Gert impresses me immensely because not only can he speak two languages, but he also can identify U.S. cars from the 1950s and ’60s with great accuracy.
The “historian” in Gert feels that this period is when American car design evolved quickly and greatly affected auto design in Germany. His interest in American cars has motivated him to write several books and articles about American automobiles and our unique automotive culture. Most of his books are published in German, but a few are also in English. He kindly gave me an English-language copy of his book entitled “The Age of the Land Yacht: 1950-1970,” that includes an essay written by our mutual friend Cliff Ghetti.
His daily driver is the tiny Smart Car sold by Mercedes-Benz. His first car was a used Beetle. Then he moved up to a Citroen 2CV and Morris Mini and eventually to marques such as Alfa Romeo, Mercedes, BMW and Jaguar. What fun it was for me to have Gert get excited to see a 1972 Alfa Romeo Guilia Super four-door sedan at the EyesOn show that was nearly identical to a 1974 model Gert once owned. One question I like to ask interviewees in this column is what car, regardless of price or age, would he most like in his garage today. Surprisingly, to me it was not an American car but rather two Euro models: A mid-’60s Mercedes-Benz 350 SE coupe or a Jaguar Saloon of the same period, especially the MKII. Gert has studied at New York University and in annual visits to our country since 1970 has made many American friends.
Perhaps the most enjoyable part of the weekend was the pleasure of garnering new discoveries from observations made by a true car nut who has diverse, different perspectives. I was able to reveal some little tidbit about a design feature that Cliff and Gert had never noted before and conversely I learned new discoveries from them. Perhaps one of my most memorable moments occurred at the Motor Muster when we were walking past cars from the 1930s. We came across several quite magnificent looking vehicles. Not the Cadillacs or the Packards, but it was the Pontiacs that got our greatest interest. These were the models created during the period when GM’s fairly new Design and Colour Section was growing more influential and putting out many highly regarded and beautiful cars. We all were amazed that we had somehow overlooked how handsome these lower-priced Pontiacs are, and that they had not caught our attention before. By the way, the Pontiacs all presented the striking – and new to the GM division – “silver streak” chrome design feature that ran atop the hood from the radiator to the windshield (and continued on the trunk as well) that was a Pontiac tradition through 1956.
Both car shows were wonderful affairs and my friends and I enjoyed all the vehicles on display, but there was an elephant in the room, a very wet one. Occasional light showers on Saturday took some fun out of the Motor Muster and extreme water saturation on the beautiful grounds and a steady drizzle at the Edsel Ford Estate next to Lake St. Clair created a muddy, sloppy mess for staff, volunteers, owners and participants. I was so grateful I remembered my L.L.Bean boots and took an umbrella. As a 13-year veteran of running an annual Concours car show here in St. Joseph I could deeply sympathize with all of those who were affected after a year of planning. I felt so sorry for the organizers of both shows, but Mother Nature always makes the rules – and wins.
• Dar goofed. Reader Jim Thomas pointed out to me that my longtime assumption that the Corvair name was created by GM by taking COR from Corvette and AIR because of its air-cooled engine is incorrect. The AIR part came from the top-of-the-Chevy-line name Bel-Air. Thanks, Jim, for the heads up.
• Trivia answer: Then-Pontiac Chief Engineer John Z. DeLorean. GTO was originally used by Ferrari to represent short production runs built to homologate a design and qualify for competition in a Grand Tourer category.
Dar Davis founded the Lake Bluff Concours and chaired the event for many years. He has been writing this column since 1999. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Q. Who is credited with giving the 1964 Pontiac Tempest GTO (Gran Turismo Omologato) its name? (The answer is at the end of today’s column.)